Boxing Day at Butchart Gardens

The Butchart Gardens in Victoria on Vancouver Island are world famous gardens that attract visitors from all over the world.  Most people get to see them in the middle of summer with the Sunken Garden looking somewhat like this:

But being here in the middle of winter, our experience was going to be somewhat different.  The Gardens were started in 1904 by Jennie and Robert Pim Butchart.  They had made their living from a concrete factory and had moved to this part of Vancouver Island for its rich limestone deposits.  Once the quarry was mined out – this area formed the basis of a pleasure garden which was designed and built on by various landscape architects over the following century, pretty much. At the moment there is an unsurprising Christmas theme running through the temporary displays that have been dotted throughout the gardens.  Based on the 12 Days of Christmas, I managed to snap some pics of some of them – but probably not all!
Three French Hens: The Rose Carousel at the centre of the gardens: Totem poles that were given to the gardens to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the gardens. Complete with otters! One very cold Teenager: A dragon fountain near the entrance to the Japanese Gardens. The famous Rose Garden, with all the rose bushes hidden under the snow! Lords A Leaping: At this point, we decided we needed to head indoors to warm up a bit – so we visited the gift shop and found ourselves a crazy variety of salted caramel hot chocolates and weird eggnog lattes.  After warming up we braved the gardens again for another quick whip around in the dark with the park all lit up for Christmas.

The Sunken Gardens all covered in Christmas lights. Maids a Milking:We had a wonderful, if freezing cold, visit to the Gardens, and stopped on the way back for another typical Canadian experience – A&W burgers and frosty mugs of root beer for dinner! Seriously?  Slushy root beer in this weather?  🙂

The Aussies White Christmas

Woke up to see a few inches of fresh snow had fallen overnight.  Our SnowWoman (she inadvertently ended up with an hourglass figure) was getting more and more lopsided with every passing flurry.  The kids, weirdly, were sitting quietly with Grandma-Sue at 8am waiting for everyone to rise – they actually had to be reminded that they had received permission to wake the parents anytime after 6am!   We had a lovely Christmas morning with the family, all warm and toasty inside with the snow outside the window – we did spare a few thoughts for everyone back home struggling through Christmas in the mid-30Cs heat, but only a few.

After a bunch of presents were given (I’ve obviously been in Canada too long, my collective nouns have all reverted to ‘bunches’), we went to Uncle Gary’s to meet up with the extended family and spend the afternoon together. Turns out street hockey is a ‘must-do’ Canadian experience which everyone got into with vigour.  We had the full experience with at least one scuffle breaking out, regular breaks upon calls of: ‘CAR!’, and one poor young player copping the ‘puck’ to the gonads.  🙂  Our intrepid street hockey players. Lunch was a lavish affair of roast turkey, baked ham, and all the trimmings.  Absolutely delicious.  For the first time ever, the kids enjoyed a roast Christmas dinner without having to be dragged out of the swimming pool to eat.  A goodly portion of food and wine was consumed until everyone had their fill – and still, they’ll be eating turkey leftovers for a month, I’d say.  🙂    We watched some football and the kids played some games and entertained Zoe, the puppy until it was time to go.  Luckily, one of the cousins remembered to set up a group photo before we all dispersed…
Merry Christmas everyone… we had an amazing time and created a memorable Christmas that I am sure none of us will forget for a lifetime.  <3 

Christmas Eve in Canada

We’ve been here a few days now and are attempting to move like Canadians so we don’t stand out too much.  But given we are rugged up to the eyeballs every time we leave the house, I don’t think anyone is mistaking us for locals.  🙂

Saturday was spent mostly having a sea day and doing some last minute Christmas shopping – you forget how difficult it is to be organised when you’ve been on the road for a week and you haven’t done ANY Christmas shopping before you left home!  It took a few trips to the shops to pick up everything we wanted for the kids, but eventually, I think we have gotten it all sorted.  On Sunday we went for a bit of a drive to see ‘the big trees’ up at Cathedral Grove via Chemainus, a little town known for its beautiful murals that are painted on nearly every building.  Even the Subway gets the Chemainus treatment…

A little potter around with plenty of stamping our feet in the cold, and it was back into the car (has anyone ever written an Ode to Car Seat Warmers – omg, someone with some poetic talent really should, they’re amazing – other than that initial ‘pee’d in your wetsuit feeling’, of course!) to head to Cathedral Grove to see the Douglas Fir and big Cedar trees.

Arrived at the Grove and discovered about 5kms of circuit tracks through the trees.  The tracks were mostly icy and somewhat slippery and it was freezing cold in that little valley (literally), so I wasn’t sure how much appetite the group would have for traipsing through the forest, but being from Australia and primarily family with dry sclerophyll forest – turns out, we all had plenty of enthusiasm for fir trees covered in snow.  Bit disappointed with some of my photos, they certainly don’t capture the beauty of the site… I will just have to work harder to figure out taking photos in snow conditions AND maybe take my gloves off next time to stop the camera shake. On the way back, we stopped through the town of Ladysmith.  Ladysmith has a tradition of lighting up their town every Christmas for the last 30 years, and it has apparently gotten bigger and better every year.  These photos don’t show the town off very well – they are hand-held.  I have to point out that they were taken at 4:30pm in the afternoon!  The days are pretty short as you might expect; it gets light around 8am and dark around 4-4:30pm…. which is a huge contrast to when I was in this neck of the woods in 2015 in mid-summer and we had 20 hrs of sunlight every day in Vancouver, and midnight sun in Alaska.  Yes, night photography out the window of a moving car… that photography degree sure comes in handy!  😛
Once we returned to Duncan and were all warm and snug back indoors, it started to snow.  We were warned not to expect a white Christmas in this part of Vancouver Island, that it was usually cold and raining more than anything else but there was snow on the ground for earlier in the week and Christmas Eve, it turned on a fresh layer of snow.  For many of our party, this was the first time they’d seen snow, for some it was the first time they’d seen snow actually falling – for all the Aussies here, it was like some sort of magical movie Christmas, the likes of which we have seen on tv since we were kids.  Just beautiful… the kids (including the big kids!) were just thrilled.


Canada, here we come!

Spent our last morning in Tokyo doing some creative packing – we hadn’t exactly gone mad on the shopping, but seems quite a bit of the stuff we did pick up was just irregular in size and shape and hard to square away, so even though the Packing Gene runs in my family, it took far longer than I anticipated.

Once we had our bags all sorted we jumped the subway into town to pop into the Odakyu Department Store to hunt for homewares (of all things).  Odakyu is a 16 floor department store with an amazing food hall in the basement and plenty of fancy restaurants on the top floors.  In between is just about everything you might find in an enormous Myer/David Jones but with a Japanese flavour.
I love the plastic food outside of restaurants – there should be more of it in western countries, I say.  🙂  The fresh food hall was amazing – and the seafood looked incredible.

Eventually, it was that horrible sad time to start our transit and head to the airport.  We took the NEX (Narita Express) train which like all trains here was clean and comfy and well appointed.  We arrived at the airport just in time to deal with the overly officious Japanese love of paperwork… passport presentation at the self-check-in kiosks, and again at the actual bag drog/check-in counter – I swear we were effectively checked in again at the ‘bag drop’ counter as the passports were all inspected, boarding passes double checked, baggage tags issued and the whole thing took longer than the self-check-in. Then of course, the security check where I got a thorough frisk down because of the underwires in my bra (and the security chickie was not shy!), then customs and immigration and it was passports again, and by the time we went through all this, the two hours early at the airport turned into 10 mins to find our gate!

Nevermind, we were there in plenty of time for a quick whip around they duty-free (only to discover nothing we actually needed) and a few minutes to charge a phone and then it was onto the plane with more officiousness… passports, scanning and stamping of boarding passes?!  The Japanese LOVE their official stamps – even going into a tourist attraction or a museum, you will buy a ticket and then two minutes later another employee is putting a stamp on it to double check your ticket?? No idea why.

In the end we boarded our Air Canada flight without a small delay but without too much hassle.  The fight was about… oh 15% good -largely due to the plentiful sake which just seemed to keep multiplying thanks to a friendly flight attendant. None of us fared particularly well on the flight – being 8 hours of overtired, announcements in three languages and a few too many unhappy babies on the flight.  But we arrived on time in Vancouver and were happily greeted by an unexpectedly smooth customs/immigration* and then transfer through to our smaller flight to Victoria.

*There is an epic administrative clusterfuck omitted here about how Canadian immigration processes for dual citizens have recently changed and Canadia citizens holding multiple passports are no longer eligible to enter Canada on their non-Canadian (in our case, Australian) passports using the very simple and cheap eTA visa system, but instead are expected to get their Canadian passports renewed (even if they haven’t had one for 20 years!) in order to be allowed back in their native country for a holiday.  Which of course we were unaware of until about four weeks prior to departure, and passport applications were hastily submitted, but demand at the consulate was leading to inevitable delays and they weren’t going to be processed in time, leading to ‘Emergency eTAs being issued on the original Australian passport the hapless ex-pat Canadians wanted to use anyway! Details omitted because the huge time sucking drama and expensive of it all, has left those involved somewhat traumatised – though having just written this truncated version of the entire saga means it’s not really ‘omitted’ anymore, doesn’t it?  #showerthoughts

Where was I? Oh yes, Vancouver International transiting over to Vancouver Domestic to find out our plane to Victoria (BC’s capital) looked like this… propellors.  I hate small planes. Then we were delayed for about an hour, because they needed to put ‘snow tyres’ on the plane.  😮  Now, we could see this little plane on the tarmac the whole time we were delayed, and no one went anywhere near the tyres while we were waiting for that hour.  Personally, I think the pilot was just running late…  Probably off having a shag and lost track of time or something. All good, we eventually took off, survived the rather bumpy short flight to Victoria and picked up our rental car and before you know it we were driving across the Malahat Highway towards Duncan.  Now, when we booked this trip, we were aware that we were coming to Canada for a White Christmas that was unlikely to be white at all due to Duncan and surrounds being not far off sea level and hardly ever having snow… .but Mr K’s Parking Fairy seems to have kicked it up a notch and the further we got from Victoria, the more of the white cold stuff we saw!  Seems the region had a very unseasonal snow dump on Tuesday and was scheduled for even more to come!  It is currently even predicting it to be actually snowing on Christmas Day too – so we are expecting a White Christmas after all!  The kids are so excited… oh screw it – I’m excited!  And from the reactions of some of the Canadian relatives, they are pretty excited about a White Christmas too.  🙂 TIL snowy and speed landscape photography out the car window, do not mix. We pulled up to Mr K’s uncle’s house and were greeted by this tree… which I had to double check was actually real, because it looks like something out of a store.  But yes, apparently it’s real. As night fell, it started to gently snow some more and the front yard looks like something from a movie.

So all up – not too horrid a transit, and being greeted by the prospect of an actual White Christmas made for a bucnh of very excited Aussies bouncing around last night trying to stay awake until a reasonable hour to turn in.

Akihabara Cat Cafe, Shibuya and Robot Restaurant, oh my!

This morning we head off into Akihabara to hunt for anime and expensive plastic.  No seriously, this seems to be what Akihabara is all about.  Plastic figurines of famous anime characters line the walls of every store here and I have no idea how or why they sell – but they obviously do.  Mandarake is one of THE biggest and most well known anime/manga stores in Akihabara – it is 8 floors of collectables, anime, manga, DVDs, CDs, figurines, collector cards and lord knows what else.  It is a veritable rabbit warren.  Back out on the street, even your regular little corner agift store is packed to the gills with merchadise in every nook and cranny.  Everyone is a bull on the china here, there’s no avoiding it.  They have so much merchandise all crammed into such tiny little stores that you can’t help but knock half the products… which is why they are all secured to shelves using clips and hooks and everything swings and moves as you walk through the store.And of course, EVERY store has its adults-only upstairs areas (which are sometimes as many as three or more floors bigger than the floor of Dragonball Z toys and Pokemon plush that attracts people into the place!  So much porn! When I wondered out loud, ‘Who actually pays for porn in this day and age?’, the Teenager replied, ‘Well, if you want something specific, you have to pay for it.’ 😮 Gaming and vending machines are everywhere… throw in your yen, and manouvre the dodgy gaming controls for a chance to win an enticing soft yellow squishy thing!  🙂  Or throw in slightly more yen and get a chance to win this off license Pikachu.  🙂 Racks and racks of toy dispensing machines line the streets.  They usually take between Y200 and Y500 and dispense a random little plastic toy-in-a-ball.  They must be profitable, but I can’t help but wonder who is buying all these toy-in-a-balls? They’re obviously designed to be collectable but still…
This one is a corker – there are five plastic wearable badges in this machine, with one of five cute anime girls on each button which you will get at random… …and on the bottom of the machine are pictures of a man having a sad/tired rough time.  We used the Google Translate over the text and basically, it was saying that if you buy this badge, you can escape the drudgery of your everyday life and be happy! Happiness!  This little machine is selling escapism and happiness… that’s one helluva badge! Manga stores everywhere. Even more floors of porn… Mr K lost in the back of the porn floors… I didn’t go up, but he said, the higher up the floor the more ‘extreme’ the content gets.Phew after all that searching through figurines and anime and dodging the porn, we stumbled onto the Mocha Cat Cafe. Now I am not a cat person as many of you will know, but the whole concept intrigues me somewhat.. why would you pay to go hang out in a cafe full of cats?

Being a thoroughly modern and quintessentially Japanese experience, we thought we should add it to our day of quintessentially modern Japanese pursuits.  A lovely lady helped us with some hand sanitiser, slippers and of course, the Rules (rules? for being around cats?!?) and explained the cost – Y200 for every ten minutes you stay, and you must buy a refillable drink for Y350, so a minimum of Y550 per person to go in and ‘relax with cats’.Inside was a space with a lovely decor, delighfully Japanese’d Christmas Carols playing quietly in the background and a huge anime library where you could sit down and watch some tv while you cuddle some kitties.The anime library – with a huge selection, no doubt designed to keep you in the kitty cafe as long as possible.Cats chillin in their weird little hanging birdcage things… very well fed cats btw.  You can feed the cats for an additional Y500.
For 1pm on a Wednesday, it was amazing well patronised.  There were quite a few people there, even one lady on her laptop who had obviously settled in for quite a while to get some work done. After, oh I’d say about eight and a half minutes of quality looking-at-cats time (Nope – didn’t pet any, me and cats, meh), we went looking for somewhere for some cheap and cheerful brlunch.  It was pretty cold today so we went looking for some small Japanese curry bowls which we thought would fill the bill given we were planning a very late dinner tonight.  We came across this place down the road from the cat cafe that looked perfect – nothing on the menu but curry.  So in we went. From the pictures on the menu, portions looked perfect for lunch and it was chicken, pork or prawn curry… order your curry and biru from the little machine and go take a seat. We were right about this being a great curry restaurant but not so much on the polite portion sizes.  We got huge plates of curry, which I have to admit did not look so appetitisng… but once you tried it, absolutely delicious.  Probably the best katsu curry I have ever had.  The Teenager was very happy with his wash, probably the first meal we’ve had that filled him up!After I was waiting outside and found out from the signs that this place has prize winning curry in 2015 for some big curry conference/competition – so no wonder it was good.  I have no idea what the place was called though.  Couldn’t fathom it for love or money. After lunch, we went for a wander into Shibuya, just because we could – to do a bit of shopping and have a look around. Oddly, this slick black store is a Disney Store… and no, I didn’t go in. The retail pain of working the Disney Store over Christmas is still altogether too raw.
Then it was back to Shinjuku for our booking at the Robot Restaurant.  When we were in Tokyo two years ago, we had booked tickets to take the then, Small Child, to go see the Robot Restaurant as we thought it would be quite the spectacle for a kid.  Unhappily at the time, it was closed for renovations the week we were here. Now, we come back and I thought he’d be over it, but unhappily he still wanted to go.  So we duly went and bought tickets.

Let the tacky tacky Japanese game-show/restaurant/cafe thing begin! Right from the front door you get an inkling of what you are in for – more glitter, sequins, neon and mosaic mirror tiles per square inch than you would have thought humanly possible. We were then welcomed into the Guest Waiting Room whereupon it took my eyes a full ten minutes to recover from the visual assault on the senses. It’s like Versace and Las-Vegas-Fat-Elvis had a litter of tattooed, vajazzled love children, and they vomited all over the place in here. This is his, ‘somewhat overwhelmed but trying to be blase about it look’.  😉  Neon ceilings floors and walls, golden seashell glass-topped tables, gilded rose embossed chairs, massive tv screens and oh, so so many mirrors just on every surface. Even the bathroom was a sight to sore the eyes. Then the bell went and it was time to descend into the basement of the building for the show itself.  We were treated to quite a few Christmas Carols in the waiting area while we sipped on our freebie sake (which tasted nothing like sake…?) and I was getting concerned that we may actually have been stuck with an entire Christmas themed show… I definitely would NOT have signed up to sit through that. Upon being shown to our seats – the first thing wheeled in front of us?  The souvenir cart swiftly followed by a drinks cart.  Then it was a few safety rules (keep your hands in, don’t touch the robots, no flash photography) and it would soon be on with the show. 

The show was performed in three acts – the first of which involved a lot of drumming, a lot of neon, scantily clad warrior girls and a LOT of screaming at full volume.  I have no idea what it was about… but have the vague idea it was some sort of welcome? We then had a fifteen-minute interval where, you guessed it, they tried to sell us more souvenirs and drinks.  🙂  The next vignette appeared to have some sort of post-apocalyptic theme running through it – robots had taken over the earth but the humans were fighting back or some such.  It was all a bit obscure, to be honest, and passed in a blur of lights and loud noises.

You may think these photos are out of focus or dodgy, but I like ’em!

Then another intermission/selling opportunity, before a slightly Christmassy themed intro and a feathery jumping birds/tropical bonanza of a finale.  I’d stay it doesn’t get weirder than this, but we’re  in Japan… and that’s probably way too big a call.  🙂

And yet, through all this noise and lights and pyrotechnics and craziness… these two beside us slept through the lot!
By the way, if anyone is interested in going to this overpriced tourist trap, err, I mean unique Japanese cultural experience – there is a Tourist Information centre at Shinjuku bus station that has tickets for about Y2,000pp cheaper than you can buy online or at the RR.  It’s well worth a couple of bucks on the subway to head down there to pick up discount tickets.

After the show, and still reeling somewhat from the experience, we went for a last wander through Shinjuku all lit up and found a late dinner.  Of course more sake and another magnificent sashimi platter.  *sniff sniff*  I’m going to miss the food when we leave.